Skip to main content

Is this the end of the world? Why would the gods let this happen?

Pompeii
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Gladiator meets Titanic, and every bit as mechanically fashioned and empty-headed as the pitch sounds. You’d expect nothing better from Paul W Anderson, a technically efficient but soulless director blessed with a determinedly mediocre career. I wouldn’t be surprised if he genuinely believed he was making something of emotional heft and tragic beauty, his chance to win credibility with a sword-and-sandals epic doubling as an almighty tearjerker. In volcano-busting 3D.


I didn’t watch the 3D version, I hasten to add, but the third act disaster movie trappings are clearly intended for those donning such spectacles; flaming molten chunks cascading hither and thither. This section manages to ape both Titanic (rescuing the girl while dodging the villain) and 2012 (outrunning earthquakes, but without the sense of humour). Anderson can put together an action sequence, and he also has a fair eye for integrated effects work, but as his filmography proves he’s never been able to make us care about his characters. This is his first love story, so the failing on this occasion is particularly glaring.


The screenplay is credited to Janet Scott and Lee Batchler (Batman Forever) and Michael Robert Johnson (one of five names on the first Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes) and I can only assume there were no conversations along the lines of “Perhaps we could come up with something better here?” Anderson begins with a quote from Pliny the Younger describing the disaster, which might wrongly suggest attempts at authenticity (Anderson alleges the all the volcano business is accurate geologically accurate… great balls of fire aside – which constitute an unerring threat).


That’s as good as it gets, since everyone here is wretchedly modern in sensibility; not least heroine Cassia (Emily Browning), a headstrong young woman seemingly oblivious to Roman customs and etiquette. But then, she has utterly doting parents (Carrie Anne Moss, perpetually under-used, and Jared Harris; both add a bit of class to the proceedings) who wouldn’t even think of such a backward custom as arranging a marriage for her. She’s like Kate Winslet in Titanic, you see, rebelling against the codes of her time as if granted foreknowledge from the gaudy heights of 21st century California. Accordingly, the makers appear to have done their research by watching Roman epics from the ‘50s.


Her parents live in Pompeii, and daddy is attempting to get funding for a new amphitheatre from Keifer Sutherland’s Senator Corvus. Corvus is a thoroughly rotten rotter; he not only has designs on Cassia, but he killed the parents of poor pouting Milo (Kit Harington) when he was but a wee lamb. Milo subsequently entered slavery only to emerge a positively ripped 20-something kick-ass gladiator (so… slavery’s good for your health regimen?) Most curiously, he’s also a peerless horse whisperer. One wonders where he got the time for such sensitivity amid the arterial spray of bested opponents. Ah, I know; he comes from a tribe of Celtic horsemen, which means it must be in his genes! It also shows he’s a deep and whistful soul, so when he first encounters Cassia she has no choice but to fall for his animal-loving humanity (“Stop! Let him help the horse”; which he does by snapping it’s neck, I have no idea quite how strong you’d need to be to do that – Hulk or possibly Wolverine could manage it – but it seems Milo’s more than got the goods).


This is just the first of numerous unintentionally funny moments throughout, including Milo’s Inigo Montaya revenge fetish and his displays of quite astonishing stoicism (“15 lashes and he didn’t make a sound”). At least Keifer, relishing the chance to play a bad guy, and taking a stab at something approximating his father’s flair for ghoulish refinement, seems to get the joke (one that clearly didn’t dawn on Anderson). During the centre piece gladiatorial, a re-enactment of Corvus’ victory over the Celts is staged by Harris’ Severus. Unfortunately, no one counted on the estimable fighting skills of Milo and pal Atticus (Adele Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the “Romans” are thoroughly trounced. Turning to his host, Corvus comments “Severus, this is not exactly how I remembered it”. He also makes a point of Alan Rickman-ing excessive orders, with an ever-more frustrated demand to “Kill them! Kill them all!


Anderson is best known for making one half decent movie with Event Horizon, ruining what was commonly held to be a great script for Soldier, killing any last shreds of respect the Alien series had with Alien vs. Predator and inflicting three of the five Resident Evils on the world (he wrote all five; the script for Pompeii is so perfunctory I thought he must have pitched in, but it seems not).  Where he does exhibit a degree of slick competence is in staging action but, like (for example) Len Wiseman, this has little impact because his pictures are so bland and faceless. The introduction to adult Milo sees him kill a series of arena antagonists in slow motion without pausing to adjust his leather skirt; Harington, with ne’er a hair out of place and an expression that’s more sullen than moody, looks like he’s filming a shampoo advert (just look at the post below for the effects of a bracing lava shower on one's perm). It’s no more than you’d expect from the director; he sees Harington playing an affecting and sympathetic character in Game of Thrones, thinks I’ll have some of that guy, but forgets to include any of the ingredients that would allow him to be relatable.


Still, the brutal arena games include some creative moments, the re-enactment chief among them. I’m unconvinced that Milo could do all the amazing things he does without tying his chain in knots, but I’ll let that pass. Less successful is Anderson’s penchant for having his young hero leap upon his adversaries from a great height at any opportunity. When it comes to the all-important eruption, there’s a lot of dashing about and increasingly absurd delays of the inevitable. There are duels aplenty amid the ash and devastation, including a fight to the death in the rubble of the arena (Sasha Roiz enjoys being a bastardly Roman almost as much as Sutherland) and a chariot race through the exploding streets. Atticus even saves a child at one point, who will doubtless die minutes later anyway. But it’s the thought that counts.


Harington and Browning may die in an everlasting clinch, but it only makes dramatic sense to off your protagonists if you care about them. For all the significant failings of his last two movies, James Cameron was able to make audiences care about his love stories. It’s not even necessarily the case that Anderson sets up something cruder than Jimbo. Rather, the latter knows how to fashion the rudiments of character (and they only ever are rudiments). Here, the love story amounts to naught and it’s the readiest explanation of why Pompeii was an expensive bomb ($108m gross worldwide on a $100m budget). It’s so non-descript, so unassumingly derivative, there’s barely a conversation to be had here. Never mind, Resident Evil 6 is just around the corner.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

So long, sky trash!

Star Wars The Saga Ranked
This is an update of my 2018 ranking, with the addition of highly-acclaimed The Rise of Skywalker along with revisits to the two preceding parts of the trilogy. If you want to be generous and call it that, since the term it makes it sound a whole lot more coherent than it plays.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Man, that’s one big bitch cockroach.

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Everyone loves Bruce Campbell. He’s eminently lovable; self-depracating, a natural wit, enthusiastic about his “art” and interactive with his fans. It’s easy to be seduced into cutting anything he shows up in some slack, just by virtue of his mighty Bruce-ness. I know, I’ve done it. Unfortunately, not everything he does has the crazy, slapstick energy of his most famous role. Most of it doesn’t. Don Cascarelli’s Elvis versus Mummy movie has a considerable cult following, based as much on the cult of Don as the cult of Bruce, but its charms are erratic ones. As usual, however, Campbell is the breezy highlight.

The blames rests with Cascarelli, since he adapted Joe R. Lansdale’s short story. The premise is a great high concept mash-up; Elvis Presley, a nursing home resident in declining health, must fight off an ancient Egyptian mummy. Is he really Elvis, or Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff? Or both, as the King claims to have switched places with the real Haff so as t…

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.